FRIDAY, May 23, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- As they learn more about electronic cigarettes, American smokers are becoming less likely to believe that the devices are a safer choice than tobacco cigarettes, a new study finds.
In 2010, nearly 85 percent of smokers believed e-cigarettes were less dangerous than traditional cigarettes, but that dropped to 65 percent of smokers in 2013, researchers report in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
"This apparent decline in smokers' beliefs about reduced harm of e-cigarettes compared with regular cigarettes is perplexing against the background of advertising and media messages touting e-cigarettes as safer alternatives and cessation aids," study co-investigator Cabral Bigman, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a journal news release.
"One possible explanation is that the increased media attention over the lack of [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] approval and regulation of this emerging tobacco product, injuries arising from e-cigarette-induced fires, and health concerns from toxic chemicals in e-cigarettes in recent years may have conveyed conflicting information about the relative safety of e-cigarette use," Bigman said.
The FDA last month proposed long-awaited regulations governing the fast-growing electronic cigarette industry. The new rules would give the agency the authority to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, placing them under the same requirements as cigarettes. That would include a ban on the sale to minors.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that turn nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals into a vapor that can be inhaled. Most are designed to look like a tobacco cigarette, but some look like pens, USB drives or other everyday objects.
The devices are becoming more popular. It's predicted that sales of e-cigarettes will soon reach $1.7 billion, or about 1 percent of current sales of regular cigarettes in the United States.
The current study included data from the Health Information National Trends Survey. The investigators found that Americans' awareness of e-cigarettes rose from about 16 percent in 2009 to 77 percent in 2013.
"In the beginning of 2013, more than three in four respondents were aware of this novel product," study co-investigator Andy Tan, from the University of Pennsylvania, said in the news release. "The rise in awareness of e-cigarettes could reflect sharp increases in advertising expenditures by manufacturers, availability in retail stores across the country, and presence in popular media."
Those more likely to know about e-cigarettes included young people, current and former smokers, and those with higher levels of education. Those less likely to know about the devices included Hispanics and older people, the study authors noted.
The researchers also found no link between increased awareness about e-cigarettes or beliefs that they are less harmful and smokers being more likely to try quitting.
"One potential interpretation is that adult smokers have not yet accepted e-cigarettes as a means to quit smoking," Tan said in the news release.
The finding means that any claims that e-cigarettes help reduce the health threat posed by regular cigarettes are likely premature, he added.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about e-cigarettes.